The more than two dozen candidates running for Baltimore mayor welcomed a new competitor to the debate stage Tuesday at The Belvedere Hotel -- prominent activist DeRay Mckesson, a last-minute addition to the already crowded field.
Before a packed room of about 300 people, the Mt. Vernon-Belvedere Association and Charles Street Development Corp. hosted the first open candidates' forum since the filing deadline to run for mayor about two weeks ago. The forum, with 24 candidates, including 12 Democrats, was the largest field to date.
"This is a tremendous turnout," said Karen Stokes, the CEO of Strong City Baltimore. "An overcrowded room is a great sign for democracy."
Among those in attendance were front-runner Sheila Dixon, the former mayor; State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who has been polling in second; City Councilmen Carl Stokes and Nick J. Mosby; lawyer Elizabeth Embry; and businessman David L. Warnock.
Dixon faced some of the toughest questioning of the night. She was forced from office in 2010 amid a corruption probe, and, last week, her campaign finance reports came under scrutiny after she filed multiple amendments, changing the amount of cash she had on hand.
"I made a bad choice," Dixon said of her criminal conviction. "I would still be mayor if I had disclosed the relationship and gifts that were given to me when I was City Council president. "I learned from that mistake ... I paid the price."
As for the recent questions concerning her campaign finance filings, Dixon blamed the Democratic party establishment.
"When I found out about the discrepancy, because of a software glitch, I immediately had a company come on board and clean that up," Dixon said. "There are individuals who are part of the Democratic party who don't want to see me move forward and try to tear me down."
But Dixon cast herself as the most qualified and experienced candidate, who has run the city before, created popular programs, such as the Charm City Circulator, and driven down crime while decreasing arrests.
Dixon told the crowd the rioting in April would have never taken place if she has still been mayor at the time.
"Incidents that happened in April would not have happened under my administration," she said. "Crime didn't go down until I became mayor of Baltimore City. It came down because I didn't arrest our way out of this. I focused on the most violent offenders."
Similarly, Mckesson, a 30-year-old former school administrator who rose to prominence during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, faced tough questions from audience members who viewed him as an outsider.
"I began my organizing work in this city in 1999 when I was just a teenager," Mckesson said. "I've not been absent."
The Teach for America alumnus also pushed back against audience members who accused him of being a pawn of corporate education organizations. "I don't know where this idea that I believe in the privatization of schools comes from?" he asked.
Mckesson pointed to his detailed platform, released last week, which calls for dramatic changes in education and policing in Baltimore.
"How long are we willing to wait for a better world?" Mckesson asked the audience. "I've watched the city continue to be a place that is not working for people. It's not working for people when there are over 300 deaths. It's not working for people when Freddie Gray and Tyrone West are dead. It's not working for people when the school system isn't meeting our needs or our kids' needs."
Other tough questions came for Mosby, who was asked whether his wife Marilyn J. Mosby's job as the city's top prosecutor doesn't present a conflict of interest. Mosby used the question to remind the audience that state prosecutors investigated and convicted Dixon, not city prosecutors.
"We can go back to business as usual -- the failed policies of the past," Mosby said. "Or we can figure out a way where we're going to forever change the trajectory of our city. We're going to go after true change."
Both Stokes and Pugh, veteran politicians, stressed their work on education. Each has helped open new schools in recent years.
Stokes also stressed his advocacy for increasing the number of audits done in Baltimore. He authored the bill requiring 13 key agencies to be audited at least once every four years.
Pugh emphasized her recently released education platform, which calls for the city schools to return to mayoral control.
"I know I can do this job," she told the audience. "I'm asking for an opportunity."
Like Dixon, Embry, the chief of the criminal division in the Attorney General's Office, touted her crime-fighting credentials. She pointed to her work as a top deputy to former State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein.
"We reduced crime, in partnership with law enforcement, to levels not seen in 40 years," she said. "It was a historic drop. We had homicides under 200 for the first time in four decades. ... We did it at the same time we cut arrests in half."
Embry demurred when asked by an audience member whether she would have charged the officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
Embry said it would be "irresponsible" as a lawyer to offer an opinion on the case without knowing the inside details.
Warnock, a venture capitalist and philanthropist, emphasized his business experience, promising to create jobs if elected.
"I'm about jobs and opportunity," he said. "I'm about real change. And, I deliver on my promises."
Several candidates expressed deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the city.
"We are in a state of emergency," said engineer Calvin Young III. "Our city had 344 homicides in the last year, a $75 million budget deficit and a quarter of our citizens live in poverty."
Former bank operations manager Patrick Gutierrez said he was "fed up" with poor leadership at City Hall.
"I am fed up with how this city has been run," he said. "I'm fed up with the way people have been treated. I'm fed up with the way our money has been wasted. I'm fed up with the way our needs have been ignored."
Baltimore police Sgt. Gersham Cupid, a 10-year veteran of the force, said April's rioting convinced him Baltimore needed a change.
"April of 2015 was disgrace not only for our city but for our nation," he said. "Unfortunately, I was one of the those officers who received bricks, trash cans and things thrown at me. ... I choose to serve."
In addition to the Democrats, four Republicans, three Green Party members and five unaffiliated candidates participated.